13th Street Rep to Launch Celebration of Founder Edith O'Hara's 100th Year
New York's venerable 13th Street Repertory Company is the only theater company in the world headed by a centenarian.
This Friday, April 15th, the 13th Street Rep begins a celebration of its legendary owner/founder/artistic director, Edith O'Hara's 100th year. Characteristically -- and fittingly for a woman who has spent so many years championing up-and-coming artists -- the celebration will kick off with a festival of new plays.
"There's no one in the world quite like Edith O'Hara. I hope the 13th Street Rep will continue to celebrate her centennial for a whole year," commented ASCAP Award-winning playwright/director Chip Deffaa, the theater's most frequently produced playwright of recent years. "Nearly a half century ago, she made it her goal to own a theater that would serve as an incubator for talent. And the theater continues to fulfill that mission, all of these years later."
Such well-known artists as Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Chazz Palminteri, Amy Stiller, Jamie DeRoy, Christopher Meloni, and many other notables performed at O'Hara's theater when they were younger. For 17 years, the unique, dark monologist Brother Theodore -- a Greenwich Village icon -- made the 13th Street Repertory Theater his base.
The award-winning, internationally respected playwright Israel Horovitz has been a member of O'Hara's informal theatrical family for some 45 years. His play "Line" (which has now been produced in more than 120 countries) has been running at O'Hara's 13th Street Repertory Theater for 45 years. Originally directed at the theater by O'Haraherself, it is the longest-running production in New York City.
Horovitz has written more than 70 produced plays, the best-known one of which is probably his Obie Award-winning "The Indian Wants the Bronx," which starred Al Pacino. When one of Horovitz's sons was six, the boy asked EdithO'Hara if she would present at her theater a play that he'd just written. O'Hara, who has always been a great believer in encouraging young talent, did just that! As she's often said, she could not imagine running a theater company without providing opportunities for children. She sees her mission in life as nourishing the talents of others.
"If she believes in you, she'll commit to you fully," notes Chip Deffaa. "And people with that kind of integrity, commitment, and passion are rare. The first time she produced one of my plays, she told me she'd present anything I wrote -- that I'd have a home at her theater as long as the theater existed. She's decisive, enthusiastic--and her word is her bond. When the original cast album of my show 'Mad About the Boy' -- which we presented at the 13th Street Rep -- comes out in the Fall, it will be dedicated to her."
Cast albums of several shows Deffaa has done at the 13th Street Rep -- including "One Night with Fanny Brice," "Theater Boys," and "The Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue" -- have been released. And the cast album of still another show of Deffaa's shows that was developed at the theater, "Irving Berlin: In Person," is due to be released May 18th. Deffaa notes: "I've praised her can-do pioneer spirit -- she's a hard-core rugged individualist -- in lectures on theater I've given everywhere from Idaho, where she grew up, to Korea, where I'll be doing one of my plays again this this summer."
O'Hara has received commendations from New York mayors and governors, and from President Barak Obama. And you never know who might turn up at her little theater on 50 West 13th Street. When she presented one of Tennessee Williams's plays at her theater, not long before he died, he proclaimed from her stage that future of theater in America was not in big Broadway theaters, but in small, independent houses like the 13th Street Rep. It meant a lot to her that Williams himself graced her stage. After his death, she gave his play "Pieces of Paradise" its New York premiere.
Edith O'Hara's strength and independence was clearly visible even when she was a youth back in northwest Idaho, where-among other things-she led an all-girl band. That was more than 80 years ago.. She eventually found her true calling-in the theater. The theater bug bit her when, in her youth-due to a shortage of local boys interested in acting-she was cast to portray George Washington in a school play. Her parents instilled in her the attitude that if there's anything you want to do in life, you should go for it-and work hard. That "can do" attitude has served her well.
What does she think accounts for her success? She's often said: "If I thought I should do something, I just did it.". She did not make excuses; she did not let health issues (including epileptic seizures) stop her from doing what she wanted to do in life. She's always had a strong work ethic and sought to surround herself with those who are like-minded.
Everyone who works at her theater is expected to help out in whatever ways might be needed. And O'Hara, wisely, has traditionally found ways way for everyone who wants to help out to contribute. When one homeless man asked if he could help in any way, she found things for him to do. When she discovered he was highly artistic, she made Tom Harlan the theater's resident set designer/costume designer, and gave him a place to live in the building. (O'Hara's own apartment is above the theater.)
O'Hara has helped many careers over the years, and has produced hundreds of plays. O'Hara helped develop the musical "Touch," which ran for two years in New York; its cast album received a Grammy nomination. She presented New York's first hit gay musical, Bill Solly's "Boy Meets Boy" (1974) at her 13th Street Repertory Theater, then moved the show to larger theaters in New York and Los Angeles, for successful year-long commercial runs.
Although Solly had had other, more conventional shows of his produced successfully before "Boy Meets Boy," he could not find any producers, in New York, London, or anywhere else, willing to gamble on a gay musical, until he metO'Hara. She took a chance on him. And he felt right at home-even helping make repairs at the theater.
O'Hara has always had a knack for getting people to help out in all sorts of ways. And she attracted people who love the theater as deeply as she does. She gave them room to thrive. Albert Poland, who managed "Boy Meets Boy" ( and went on to become an important theatrical producer and manager in New York), told an interviewer that the pioneering spirit radiated by O'Hara and others on the independent small-theater scene in NYC was exhilarating. And decades later, artists working at the 13th Street Rep, like Deffaa, say the same thing. When O'Hara presented Deffaa's original gay musical comedy "Theater Boys," some 40 years after she'd premiered "Boy Meets Boy," she was as supportive as any producer could be." Other playwrights O'Hara has presented in recent years include June Rachelson-Ospa and Andrew Guffman.
And O'Hara has given encouragement to young talents via awards to rising young artists-watch, such as Emily Bordonaro, Rayna Hirt, Benjamin Grier, winners in recent years of, respectively, the theater's "Betty Buckley Award," "George M. Cohan Award," and "Matthew Nardozzi Award."
Theater seems to be in the blood of Edith O'Hara's family. Her daughter Jill O'Hara made her mark on Broadway in the original cast of "George M!" Her daughter Jenny O'Hara, among many other credits, did "Promises, Promises" and "The Iceman Cometh" on Broadway, and in more recent years had a recurring role on the sitcom "King of Queens" Her granddaughter, Sophie Ullett, is an actress. And Edith O'Hara's son, Jack O'Hara, is a singer/songwriter.
For more information, contact the 13th Street Repertory Theater, 50 W. 13th Street, NYC, www.13thstreetrep.org.